Back in 1962, before Thunderbirds had put an orbiting space station around the Earth, before Captain Scarlet had ventured as far as Mars and incurred the wrath of the Mysterons, before Dave Bowman and HAL had embarked on Kubrick's epic odyssey to Jupiter, and before James T Kirk had taken the U.S.S. Enterprise out to explore the final frontier, Earth was protected from all manner of alien invaders by the puppets of the World Space Patrol and its flagship Fireball XL5.
Now mostly forgotten by all except the most avid fans of scifi-themed TV and those of us of *ahem* a certain age, Fireball may well be the reason I'm still a fan of all things scifi to this day. At five years old I may have been too young to be aware of Kennedy's historic "We choose to go to the moon" speech, but I was certainly old enough to be captivated by the adventures of Colonel Steve Zodiac and his crew.
And what a crew! As well as Zodiac himself (the "greatest astronaut of Space Patrol"), the ship boasted a beautiful French "doctor of space medicine" Doctor Venus, resident boffin Professor Matt Matic and a wonderfully perspex co-pilot Robert the Robot. At some point they also seem to have acquired an alien pet, Zoonie the Lazoon, an obvious forerunner of Debbie, the monkey-like pet acquired by Penny Robinson in Lost in Space.
Viewed through today's eyes, the show is very much a product of its time. Not only was it initially made in black and white, it had only the most fleeting of relationships with scientific fact. A simple "oxygen pill", for example, was sufficient not only to allow the crew to breathe outside the ship, but also to protect them from the cold and every other rigour associated with surviving in the vacuum of space!
In addition, some of the dialogue seems designed specifically to outrage even the most non-militant of feminists. In the first episode Doctor Venus is seen preparing the crew's meal and is frequently asked to make coffee. By episode 4, we learn she spends her off-duty hours "sewing on buttons and doing the laundry" for Steve and Matt. Wow. Imagine Star Trek's Doctor McCoy being asked to wash the unmentionables of Kirk and Spock!
But the selling point of the show was never meant to be its realism or its characters. As with Gerry Anderson's other shows like Supercar (which preceded it), Stingray and Thunderbirds (both of which came later), the real star was the vehicle: Fireball XL5 itself. Fireball was a spaceship. Not a flying cruise liner like the Enterprise or Voyager; not a utilitarian hulk like the Nostromo; Fireball was an honest-to-goodness 1960s cylindrical rocket, complete with a detachable bullet-shaped nose-cone, wings and a tail fin. It was Thunderbird 1 - but even more cool; a space Cadillac with missiles!
Thanks to the modern miracle that is DVD, all 39 episodes can now be seen again. As indeed can the puppets' strings! If you thought Team America was only spoofing Thunderbirds, the Fireball XL5 box-set will really open your eyes.
Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet may represent the high-point and best-known of Gerry Anderson's creations featuring scifi-themed marionettes but, as these episodes demonstrate, all the key ingredients were already in place as early as 1962. The corny dialogue, the jerky movements, the laughable foreign accents ... yes, they're all there.
But most of all, so are the wonderful machines and the sense of excitement; the sense that Anderson was creating a brand new form of entertainment for children and instilling in them a fascination with the future that would last a lifetime. A sense, as Kennedy might have said, that Anderson was choosing to send his puppets to the moon, not because it was easy; but because it was fun!